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National Defense > Blog > Posts > North Dakota Makes Case for Selection as FAA Unmanned Aircraft Test Site
North Dakota Makes Case for Selection as FAA Unmanned Aircraft Test Site
By Dan Parsons



GRAND FORKS, N.D. — The international airport in this town of 53,000 has only two gates, but the skies around it are swarming with aircraft, making it the 28th busiest in the nation.

It isn't the big commercial airliners that earn it that distinction, but the 120 Cessna aircraft owned by North Dakota University's John D. Odegard School of Aerospace Sciences.

The farms stretching to the horizon in almost every direction make it clear that North Dakota's economy is still dominated by agriculture, but Grand Forks is decidedly an aviation Mecca.

The city and its university are the epicenter of the state's effort to be named one of six unmanned aviation test sites the Federal Aviation Administration will designate by the end of the year.

“In North Dakota there is an expertise that is already in place, not promised,” said Lt. Gov. Drew Wrigley, during a two-day media tour of the city and its aviation industry. “There is almost nothing we are promising to build if we are chosen. The infrastructure is already in place.”

Boasting the first undergraduate unmanned aerial systems major in the country and the largest public collegiate aviation training and research facility in the United States, North Dakota and its namesake university are making an argument for inclusion on that list.

“We are a largely rural, flat state that has big, uncongested sky,” Bob Becklund, director of the Northern Plains Unmanned Systems Authority, said Nov. 12. “We also have four seasons, including cold winter, in which UASs can fly to test their abilities in all types of weather.”

Remotely piloted aircraft — known to the public by the somewhat misleading moniker of “drones” — are expected to have major impacts on countless industries from precision agriculture to firefighting and search and rescue once cleared to fly over U.S. soil. States vying for FAA certification anticipate a major windfall from the resulting economic impact of UAS research, development and entrepreneurship.

North Dakota is in the running with a field of 25 contestants from two dozen states seeking an FAA designation as a test site to aid the congressionally mandated 2015 deadline for integration of drones into the national airspace. The FAA is expected to make its choice within 45 days and intends to have the first test site up and running within six months.

The FAA wants six diverse sites with differing terrain, climate and populations where drones can fly relatively unrestricted in skies uncluttered with commercial aircraft. While Grand Forks’ airport bristles with local commercial traffic, on a map of airliner traffic over the United States, North Dakota skies are nearly blank.

The state government has already spent $1 million in funding from its Department of Commerce just in the effort to gain certification. Another $4 million is allocated for setting up the test center if and when North Dakota is chosen.

That sum is on top of $13.5 million the state has already invested in UAV research and development.

North Dakota is not alone in setting aside resources to chase that pot of gold. The State of Utah undertook a study to determine the economic impact of hosting one of six new Federal Aviation Administration test sites for unpiloted aircraft. The tally: more than 23,000 new jobs adding up to $12 billion in wages, $720 million in new tax revenues and an overall $23 billion in total economic impact over 10 years.

Bruce Smith, dean of the North Dakota aviation school, said the school’s expertise in training pilots of manned aircraft has directly translated to the training of unmanned aircraft.

UND students already fly around 120,000 flight hours per year to become commercially certified pilots, he said. 

The UAS program had only five students in 2009 and has since grown to 134. Each receives certification as a commercial pilot along with instruction in UAS flight, engineering and research. So far 30 students have graduated with a major in unmanned aircraft. Most have gone on to career with major defense contractors that build drones. General Atomics has employed the lion’s share, Al Palmer, director of the UND UAS Center of Excellence, said.

He said the school will not eschew manned flight experience in its pursuit of unmanned technology and education.

“We expect that the FAA is not going to let up on UAS operators being trained pilots of manned aircraft,” Palmer said. “The students from here, when they graduate with a UAS major, can fly manned or unmanned aircraft. Everything we’ve been doing for years with manned aircraft we are now doing with unmanned aircraft.”

Unmanned aircraft were pioneered by the U.S. military and some of their applications, particularly in targeted killings of suspected terrorists, have made their employment controversial. Grand Forks knows both the commercial and military unmanned aircraft worlds well. The city is home to Grand Forks Air Force Base, from which all of the Air Force’s Global Hawk reconnaissance aircraft are launched or controlled. The North Dakota Air National Guard and U.S. Customs and Border Protection fly drones out of the base.

North Dakota University is the home of the only civilian owned Predator Mission Aircrew Training System — a purpose-built drone simulator made by L-3 Link — in the United States. For security reasons, the simulator is housed on the Air Force base, where students participate in a civilian training research program using the device.

But Grand Forks Air Force Base has taken licks during recent rounds of federal budget cuts and previous rounds of base realignment and closure proceedings. It has long lost its nuclear missile mission and is no longer home to strategic bombers. The Air Force last year decided that the manned U-2 reconnaissance aircraft can more efficiently perform surveillance missions than the unmanned Global Hawk and it canceled that program. 

Maj. Gen. David Spryncznatyk, the states' Air National Guard adjutant general, said the future focus of Grand Forks will be on training future military drone pilots. It is the only base in the U.S that houses Predator, Reaper and Global Hawk drones.

“Grand Forks [Air Force Base] is unique in that we have all three major unmanned missions at one base. We also have a launch and recovery capability that we use to hand off the aircraft to pilots training at other bases,” he said. “We would like to expand our training mission in future years.”

In response to Base Realignment and Closure downsizing — the 5,000-acre base now has only 1,700 uniformed personnel — a group of local officials formed the Base Realignment Impact Committee to find future economic development opportunities in partnership with the Air Force and base officials. BRIC has agreed to lease 217 acres of excess capacity on the base to create the nation’s first unmanned aerial systems technology and business park.

Once skies are cleared for remotely piloted aircraft, the Association of Unmanned Vehicle Systems International estimates purchases of about 590,000 commercial unmanned air systems for the precision agriculture industry alone by 2021. The UAV lobby predicts 70,000 new jobs with an economic impact of more than $13.6 billion following integration. By 2025, the economic impact of commercial drones could result in the creation of more than 100,000 jobs and an influx of more than $80 billion, the association estimates.

Photo Credit: A sign alerts residents of Grand Forks, N.D., that unmanned aircraft are operating in the area during a demonstration of a quadcopter owned by the sheriff’s department, by Dan Parsons.

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